Timeliness of Saint Francis of Assisi

In the introduction to my speech* – which I entitled “Francis of Assisi, Sanctity for Times of Crisis” – I am going to talk about the discourse taking place at present on crisis. It is a fashionable discourse. There is talk of the financial crisis; of climate warming, which is a serious ecological crisis; and of the cultural crisis. Christian thinkers say, that basically, we are to a great extent in a situation of anthropological crisis, as there is opposition even to the very structure of the human body (the elemental structure of paternity) to the point that it is now possible to imagine factory production of the human being as a pure product, without defects, with a view to a perfection in the human market.

timeliness of saint francis of assisi1«He strips existence, taking away its dross and worldly plaques, to return to the source of being, to see one’s own existence spring from the bosom of God. It is through poverty that Francis resolves three great antinomies: between being and having, between fraternity and hierarchy, and between the cross and joy.» (Sculpture of Saint Francis by Pedro Mena. 1653, Cathedral of Toledo)

This discourse on crisis is quite peculiar for a Christian. Is it not a negative discourse on progress? Does it not correspond to the last sudden shock of a dying progressivism? If we believe that this crisis is an exception, this means that we still believe in a perfect society on earth or in progress that will lead us finally to an absolutely fraternal society. However, for its part, this is a discourse which has produced great totalitarianisms: the millennial Reich with a humanism limited to Aryans; Communism with the idea of producing an international, classless society; and Liberalism, which seeks to manage society by excluding ideology which, it believes, would make it possible to produce peace with the coexistence of individuals in a pluralist society. What we are left with, hence, is an horizon of progress where crisis appears to be something exceptional, from which it is necessary to emerge by retying together the broken ends. The problem, however, is that young people no longer believe in this. Our condition is always critical. The Church herself, through her proclamation, puts the world in crisis. When everything could be all right in an absolutely peaceable world, the discourse of the Church would generate a crisis in it and cause the unleashing of the forces of darkness. This is what occurs with Christ and his proclamation. It causes crisis because it impedes the world from shutting in on itself as totalitarianisms would have it and it obliges each one to decide, in advance, either for Paradise or hell. All individual life, no matter how small it is, is destined to this sort of absolute that leads it to a crisis, because it is, inevitably, a question of choosing eternal good or eternal doom.

In this respect, Francis was always radical. However, within this general crisis of history – since the fall and considering our redemption – I would like to point out a particularity of the present time. It is very important to consider the special moment in which we find ourselves, a moment described by a philosopher as “time of the end” (which is not the same as the end of times!). Why? The explanation is linked to three proper names which are the names of cities: Kolyma – Auschwitz – Hiroshima.

  1. The Gulag, namely, the abyss of the political utopia – which believed in the liberation of the human race through a strong political power, able to produce equality – caused the massive destruction of individuals, as all those who opposed it were condemned by history so that, for their own good, it was necessary to eliminate them. Since then, we no longer believe that politics can lead to a happy society.
  2. Auschwitz. Europe’s camps for the extermination of Jews, came not from a raging and bloody madness, but were the product of a cultural elite. Hitler and those around him had numerous literary works, not only anti-Semitic; they also had all of Wagner, whose “Tristan and Isolde” the Fuhrer saw many times. This great love story was to embrace the very spirit of Nazism, profoundly linked to the culture and with a certain form of aestheticism. To produce the “beautiful world” of the SS, the “ugliness” of all that was Jewish had to be eliminated. For a long time it was believed that culture and technology could save us.
  3. Hiroshima. The possibility of total destruction. We no longer build anti-nuclear shelters in our gardens, as we no longer have that fear; however, that possibility is interiorized. We are aware that we are threatened. Today any adolescent is aware of the finite character of the human being, an awareness that is reinforced by the ecological question, even more so with Darwinian ideology, which presents the evolution of species with possibilities of disappearing to leave room for other species. We live in this nihilism. Note, moreover, how children’s stories are increasingly ecological. Men are the evil ones; animals understand themselves well without eating one another and they are under the threat of men. There is no longer historical memory in education. Prehistory is recalled, but no longer the kings who ruled France and Europe! And while our memory goes back to the pre-human, our projects are directed to the post-human. We believe we can get out of humanity, but from below of course. The human species is over. We no longer believe in posterity. This is the present context. Consequently, we live in urgency; we want quick success. In politics, there is only mere management; in the arts there is the desire for instantaneous success, because we no longer believe in the long-term. We talk about future generations, but we do not know if they will exist. We are conscious of this today.

It is the end of all earthly hopes. It is the fall of progressivism and this… is marvelous! Because it shows that there is an urgency to re-found everything, not by resting on the world, but by depending upon God’s promises, namely, by re-founding everything on theological hope, which does not allow us to believe that the world will create the conditions of possibility, but that these are given to us by eternity. Hence, we can have confidence in the earth from what heaven gives us. And in this sense there is, contemporaneously, a real hope.

Perhaps the great danger today is fundamentalism. People will perceive, to such a great degree, the vanity of the world that they will try to escape to the beyond. When one is Christian, one knows that eternity is the cause of time, that eternity consists in seeing one’s neighbor and the whole of creation in God, so that eternity occurs here and now in a love that manifests itself on earth and in eternity (it is not a flight to the beyond).

It is here that Francis is our man!

What is the specific character of the Franciscan charisma? Does such a character exist or is Francis such an alter-Christus that he exceeds any specificity? I think there is a specificity. Francis is the Saint of crisis, not only because he enters the fire, converts wolves, and casts out the demons of Arezzo, but because he started from nothing and arrived … at nothing, which is even better!

It is said that God created from nothing. In Francis, when there is nothing, that is better. It is about having nothing in order to be better, to go to that nothingness from which God made himself Creator and re-Creator; to go to that nothingness where the creative power springs and springs again in us. Therein lies the specific Franciscan character: by the side of this sense of nothing from which springs the divine power and that Francis calls poverty. This is the most persistent call in Saint Francis and Saint Clare. In the Dominicans, it is to preach; in the Benedictines, the opus Dei, the liturgy; in the Cistercians, work and penance; in the Carmelites, prayer; in the Jesuits, the evangelization from the highest of society, but in the Franciscans it is poverty that occupies the first place.

In a letter to Brother Leo, Francis wrote: “To follow Christ’s footsteps and his poverty”. In an address transmitted to us by Saint Clare, he says: “I, little Brother Francis, want to follow the life and poverty of Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Most Holy Mother… and I beg you… to always live in this very holy life and in poverty…”

What poverty?
There is a danger in placing poverty as a banner, posing as being poor, boasting of a certain poverty. Francis abstained from denouncing the rich as evil. He was not about Liberation Theology nor was he a Marxist. In the second rule, he counsels the wearing of coarse habits… but also not to judge… and that each one judge himself and have contempt for himself

Francis is not a man about the personal development of a psychologizing type. It is not confidence in oneself that predominates in him, but resting in confidence in God, eventually in oneself, but through God, and not through one’s own natural strength. And it is in this that he espouses the crisis. By engaging in permanent interior criticism Francis leaps over paths, a highway bandit -; he comes to help us by stripping us (see in The Little Flowers, the doorman in “perfect joy”: he is right when he says that he robs the alms of the poor). Francis is not a humanitarian, he does not help the poor; he adopts poverty. If one is poor, he impoverishes one even more. Why? Because he knows that the Holy Spirit is the Father of the poor. He strips existence, taking away its dross and worldly plaques, to return to the source of being, to see one’s own existence spring from the bosom of God. It is through poverty that Francis resolves three great antinomies: between being and having, between fraternity and hierarchy, and between the cross and joy.

Between Being and Having

In Francis, the experience of money is fundamental. He is a bourgeois, son of the rising class that practices usury. Recall the three Giotto frescoes (the gift of the cape, the dream of the palace of arms, and the call of Christ of San Damiano), three comical scenes that are cruel at the same time, because in the face of God’s call in favor of his neighbor, given the urgency of the world, and in relation to the heart itself of the Church, Francis gives an answer that is good, but which is outside his vocation: he responds with money–it is an incorrect answer. Thanks to money, nobility no longer counts: the knight is no longer armed in nobility, but in the new hierarchy of money! His alms are ambiguous: is it revenge after having lost the war against the nobility of Perugia?

In fact, given the call “Be my soldier,” he buys arms! (fortunately, he soon falls ill). Then, when he hears “Repair my Church,” he does everything the wrong way round: he steals his father’s materials and his horse and offers his purse, always with the power of money. He realized that money could break the great traditional hierarchies; that money could become a means of a certain charity. Those answers are not in the evangelical radicalism of his vocation. In the long run, what would be the meaning of what Francis had done? In general terms, it would mean “to work more to give more”, which is always a temptation for Christian business leaders, who with difficulty return to their homes, and also pretend to no longer be able to observe Sunday because they have a target of alms that they must achieve: one must always give and hence one must always produce more… and the Shabbat came to an end. And Sunday rest came to an end! That is what money will demand: a logic in which one can give with money, enter into communication, a sort of equality through money, but in which one stays on the level of having, of production, and being is lost from view.

This logic has two limitations: on one hand, one remains in the order of having and on the other, one remains within the limit of giving and not of receiving. In my book “La foi des demons” (“The Faith of Demons) [Note of the editor: Cf. Humanitas 60, page 827], I explain that gift is what most attracts the devil, because he always wants to give, but from his own self, with his own strength, without having previously received by the grace of God. When one is a creature it is necessary, in the first place, to learn to receive; receptivity is fundamental. It is necessary to acknowledge that we are nothing by ourselves. We cannot give from our own self. (Saint John, chapter 8, says that the devil is a liar because he speaks of his own fund; he has forgotten the fundamental receptivity of the creature. He certainly knows better than us that nothing is by itself, but he would like to act with the minimum of communication with God and, consequently, especially without grace). If we want to give in the order of being, as we are not the first cause of being, we can only do so by having received previously from God. What we can give, believing that we are its first cause, is nothing. When it is a question of destroying, we are the first cause, we can do that alone. A logic of gift, which is disconnected from an initial receptivity, is a destructive logic. Man will want to transform everything with his own plans. And that is why he will decimate, put people in the Gulag or the gas chambers. Hence, Francis has nothing to give. In this he is faithful to the first mission of the Apostles after Pentecost: before the paralytic of the beautiful Door, Peter says: “I have nothing to give you… but in the name of Jesus…”

Francis teaches us a far more fundamental art than giving, he teaches us the art of receiving: to receive in mendicancy, in hospitality, in gratitude. He is a profoundly sabbatical man.

I am thinking here of that passage in The Little Flowers where Francis, in face of the crumbs he received, says that he is before a magnificent feast, and, on hearing this, Brother Leo replies: “But we mustn’t exaggerate!” It is important that there should be a Brother Leo; without him our Saint would seem like a sort of romantic who embellishes things. Francis’ answer is: “We have received it from the hand of God.” Pure Providence, and hence it is wonderful! Those crumbs are brought by eternity, enveloped in the tenderness of the infinite, so that it is something greater than the feast that we would have prepared with our own hands. It is the radical position of poverty to be more receptive to the gift of God. And precisely in this is an answer to the economic crisis.

Today we live in the logic of growth and consumption.

If poor people have acquired credits, it is because they believe in the paradise of consumption: there is the need to have a house, to obtain extremely dear credits. They did not come across Francis on their path, who would have told them that access to property is important, but it is necessary to be aware of illusion, as those people who offer credits will subject them to slavery.

timeliness of saint francis of assisi2«Saint Bonaventure said this in regard to Francis: “From so much going back to the first origin of all things, he conceived for all of them an overflowing friendship and he called creatures brothers and sisters, even the smallest, because he knew that he and they came from the same unique principle.”» (Oil painting by Francisco de Zurbaran)

He is, instead, in a logic of decrease, not related to the economic order. He simply says that it is not about increasing riches, but about receiving what is. The meaning of the Shabbat is blessed, because it is the day in which man does not work, as it is the day in which he harvests. One can produce interminably to the point of not knowing how to use things, the small things. Poverty teaches us how to use things, to marvel at small things. Because of this, for Franciscans to be a prophetic sign today is to be faithful to their rule of poverty. Having said this, we must also say that ownership is proper to man. Animals do not have. Man produces and has. Francis is aware of this. However, one can also become a prophetic sign in this sense –the poverty of having can make one enter into the richness of being and that someone can tear people away from the madness of having increasingly more and more, to enter increasingly into being. The vocation to the strict observance of the Minor Brothers is not the same as that of their spiritual friends who must know how to use money. There is a difference between the vocation of the Religious and that of the layman. The Franciscans were the first to write treatises on the subject of loans, to emerge from the logic of usury, who wanted money to circulate in better distribution, but they themselves must not enter into that logic. They are foreign to it; they are, rather, the men who give up money and property to be in the nakedness of being.

Fraternity and Hierarchy

At the end of the battle of Perugia, in which the nobility was expelled from Assisi, a pact was signed with the bourgeoisie of the city so that they would have some power in its governance. The word “minores” appears and describes the bourgeoisie, the nobles being entitled the “maiores.” The bourgeoisie are the minor citizens. Francis founded the Minor Brothers.

He realized that money makes possible that sort of leveling, it creates new inequalities and is, in addition, something extremely dangerous, as it bestows power, but the most ephemeral of powers. Someone becomes very rich and then everything collapses, yet he remains bound by the fascination for money. When the ecclesiastical hierarchy tended towards a worldly hierarchy and turned to money, as it acquired greater power, it was weakened. Francis perceived this fragility, reinforced by the logic of money. That is why he did not think of leveling the realm of having, as a Marxist would, but of a fraternity of being. Fraternity is to possess a sense of divine paternity. There is no fraternity without a father. It is necessary not to fall into the “republican” logic of fraternity, which would like us to be a fraternity without a father. Moreover, that does not work. One does not understand well what that “republican” fraternity in France’s motto is. Liberty, yes, equality, yes, but fraternity as it is understood today (without paternity), would be equivalent, rather, to laicity. Saint Bonaventure said this in regard to Francis: “From so much going back to the first origin of all things, he conceived for all of them an overflowing friendship and he called creatures brothers and sisters, even the smallest, because he knew that he and they came from the same unique principle.”

Francis is not a humanist in the strict sense of the term. The fraternity of which he speaks is a fraternity with all creatures. And he would go beyond the “deep ecology” that speaks of fraternity with animals and plants: for him it is also “my brother fire,” “my brother wind” and also “our sister death.” The radicalism of Franciscan fraternity is unique precisely because it understands that our being is received from God in the same way as any other creature and in that radical poverty of the creature. However, Francis will also not be in that shapeless fraternity. If our fraternity is constituted from our mother, the earth, the shapeless matter, then everything is the same and we would enter into the logic of the “deep ecology” of Peter Singer (Movement for Animal Liberation), which again creates a hierarchy from utility and holds, for example, that a good cow is more useful than a handicapped person, who cannot do anything and only digs a hole in social security. For Singer, such a cow would have a dignity that is superior to that of the useless person. Thus, in this perspective, that cow would also be superior to Francis of Assisi, who wished voluntarily to be a disabled person, a poor man among the poor, and to beg. Instead, as fraternity comes from the Father who orders all things, there will be an order, and fraternity will not oppose hierarchy, but will be rethought in greater depth in the hierarchy of beings.

When Thomas Aquinas asks if God loves all creatures equally, he returns to Aristotle’s definition and says: “To love is to will the good for someone, and the more or the less can be given whether it is in the realm of loving (with greater or lesser intensity), or in the realm of the good granted (a good of greater or lesser extent).” To which Thomas adds that there is inequality in the goods that God gives, but that this does not mean that each one is not fulfilled, but that each one is fulfilled in a different degree from another. Consequently, the good communicated is unequal. However, Thomas then adds something of which Francis possessed a profound intuition. That in God’s loving, there is only one act of will; it is one and the same infinite love, which is very amazing. There is equality in infinite love, in its intensity, but there is inequality in as much as each one is given what he can and must receive. That is why we really exist in a sense which is neither economic nor ecological, but in a creaturely sense, which is ordered and hierarchical, as each one is given according to his needs. This is fundamental. This is also true for the relations within the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Often there has been an attempt to present Francis’ universal fraternity in conflict with the papacy. Respect for priests and especially for the Pope is fundamental in Francis because he knows that degrees of hierarchy represent degrees of sanctity. In the Church there is a hierarchy, not of power but of service. The Pope is the servant of the servants of God; consequently Francis shows that this hierarchy is ordered towards universal fraternity and is not a proletarian fraternity, subjected to a hierarchy of power. It is about the grandeur of a very lofty poverty, receptive of God, and is heart of sanctity.

The Cross and Joy

Francis was the first stigmatic in history. What the first Brothers would see in him, was the stigmatic, and not the Francis, the brother of creatures and very fashionable today, but instead the second crucified one. This is fundamental in avoiding a romanticism or forgetfulness of the drama of history. Fraternity is not only a fact but something that also happens through the cross. It is given, but also through sufferings, because we are sinners and we must be converted. Francis is often harsh, because he knows that he is speaking of a fraternity in God and that what is against God must be thrown into the fire and disappear. Therefore, he can make use of a tremendous force in fraternal correction. It is not about “our smiling, our being together in a mutual complacency, well accommodated in warmth while the evil ones are outside.” No, rather we are going to go before the evil ones because we know that without the grace of God we would have been worse than them. The cross is both the work of injustice as well as the work of joy (Cf. The Little Flowers, chapter “Perfect Joy”). It is joy that calls primarily for the cross in the present condition of the world, because joy, happiness, is received from God so that it crucifies our pride. Francis speaks about overcoming oneself. Consequently, in the first place is the suffering of pride, of the creature that is closed and must be torn, whose shell must be broken to receive divine light and hence true joy, separating himself from all petty pleasures. In the second place, not only is joy received, but it wants to communicate itself. What would a joy be that is kept to oneself in a narrow and egotistical manner? There is no better definition of hell than that of a small pleasure turned in on oneself. Then it is necessary to suffer to transmit joy. It is joy that goes searching for the cross. There is no duality. Hence, Francis the crucified, is the same as the joyful Francis, because it is this crucified one who receives the joy of God and communicates it to his brothers entering into their affliction, identifying himself with their affliction.

Helping the poor is not what he does, because as such it would only be a social work, of the world, as do others that are very good. It is essentially about becoming one with the poor. Christ willed to save us by becoming one of us. The Franciscan goes before the poor man, making himself poor. Here is a profound answer to the anthropological crisis, because if man destroys himself it is because he wants to save himself, to be the author of his joy rather than receiving it from God and all the other creatures from a fundamental poverty. Francis calls us again to this receptivity and he calls to it in praise, a poor word par excellence and also hospitable. When I praise God, I tell Him that I do not praise Him yet or that I praise Him insufficiently. It is a wounded, poor word. It calls all other creatures: “Praise the Lord with me,” to be able to approach God with praise worthy of Him. And in addition it calls to the future. Praise is always ecclesial, but in addition it appeals to the end of time. “I will sing to the Lord.” It receives the coming eternity. For that reason also, in this radical entrance into the mystery of poverty, Francis opens us to the loftiest praise.

Translated by Virginia Forrester.